We co-hosted a weekend gathering in the Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, Canada. It was an opportunity for people from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives to share the journey of faith they are experiencing; the good, the bad and the ugly. For my wife and I this was an exceptional weekend, we enjoyed ourselves and were challenged in wonderful ways.
There were folks from a variety of backgrounds, some who were “free range” Christians to those who are ardent supporters of institutional forms of Church. While I was well aware of the diversity of people attending and the potential for conflict, I was more concerned that it would be just another gathering of Christians where we all put on our “best face” and never say what we really believe / think. What a surprise when people were pretty darn open and honest, and while this created some mess it was a real gift from God.
A friend wrote his Master thesis on Conflict from a business perspective and focused on two kinds of conflict; 1) Conflict that ends relationship and 2) conflict which inspires creativity and innovation. The latter being a very healthy and very necessary form of conflict, but one which is often times missing in western evangelical / charismatic Christian circles. It seems though unfortunate, in matters of religion often disagreement, ends with schism, formally like church splits or with informal factions within a body. So the tendency in many church settings is passive aggressive by simply playing nice while playing “respectable” politics aka “power games”. This seems to be appealing to many because it is the preferred modus operandi. After all, it keeps the peace (gingerly though it may be) but in reality it is one of the biggest roadblocks to authentic healthy community. Why? Simply because we never really deal with our issues together, hiding our true thoughts and feelings – our very selves – from others. Community cannot form and be nurtured in this climate. The best we can hope for is some congeniality and some cooperation, but I suggest Christian community is so much more!
There is a misnomer that the absence of conflict is the sign of a mature, healthy community, and conversely, conflict in a church must mean it is somehow unspiritual or unhealthy. I strongly assert this is a completely erroneous distinction. The reality of life with real people is that when we are truly honest, we admit we are broken people. We all have issues, and these issues manifest themselves in a variety of ways – some of which are more socially acceptable than others. Regardless, we all have our issues, and conflict is inevitable. The demarcation of healthy or unhealthy, spiritual or unspiritual church communities is not the absence or manifestation of conflict. Health is determined by how we deal with conflict when it arises – and it will. How we deal with conflict will directly have an impact on the depth to which communities can actually form and become safe places to be. To become safe communities we must embrace conflict and deal with it in love and allow Holy Spirit to inspire us, to heal us and give us creativity to address our personal and corporate challenges together.
The emphasis needs to be on relationship and the path of healthy relationship is intersected by conflict. Our church communities prefer the efficient operation of the service and programs – this is the ultimate goal. As such, we have no time to address real issues as the schedules and demands of our “product” trump the needs of relationship. As such, unhealthy power will be exerted to force or manipulate parties back into their service to the machine. Rules and hierarchy will be instituted to manage the brokenness. Positional power is often invoked along with political power to bring about conformity. Unfortunately, these never deal with the issues and only hide them requiring a bigger and more “violent” use of power to keep the issues under control in the future.
The other means of avoiding conflict is through “busyness” and the “new and shiny”. The old adage “idle hands are the devils workshop” seem to lead us to keep very busy, too busy to get into trouble. Workaholism is very alive and well in evangelical Christianity but even busyness doesn’t avert conflict but will very often inhibit our ability and resources to deal with it. Likewise, the shiny and new also seeks to take our mind off the relational issues and put them on a new project, new mission, etc. Unfortunately, this is not unlike a married couple attempting to keep their struggling marriage together by having children. While it diverts attention from the issues, they will no doubt surface in the not too distant future!
So what do I mean when I say things like relationship over issue? I mean that we must value healthy relationships over mission (aka the efficient operation of our services, programs and activities). I would dare to say that healthy loving relationships are the primary mission of the Kingdom of God. Consider “they will know you are my disciples because you love one another.” John 13:35
Again, conflict is a part of reality, a manifestation of our brokenness, however, Jesus has taught us to embrace the conflict, deal with it and disarm it! How? Is any of the following familiar?
- “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”
- “Forgive one another”
- “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you”
- “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer them your left”.
- “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned”
- “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger”.
- “Seventy times Seven”
- “If someone demands your shirt, give them your coat as well”.
- “If you are told to go a mile, go the second”.
- “Serve one and other”
- “No greater love than this than a man lays down his life for his friends.”
- “ A new command I leave you love others as I have loved you.”
All these and many more are practical examples of how we deal with conflict in spiritually maturing communities. These scriptural values will convert conflict to a catalyst for deeper relationships – authentic, honest, safer and caring communities.
I have heard it said that God will often offend the mind to reveal the heart and my experience affirms the truth of this. So in the bit of the mess of our gathering, a gift of God was made manifest that I hope we do not overlook. The process of the conflict with others and their ideas may, in fact, be God himself challenging us to deal with our own blind spots, preconceived ideas, bias, and brokenness. Failure to do so will perpetuate relationally shallow church and faith. Many of us have higher hopes for the Church and are prepared to step out with courage and love into the joyous mess that life can sometimes be.